[Humanist] Re: 24.926 in denial

Willard McCarty willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri May 6 07:29:45 CEST 2011

I asked about "just a tool" meaning Wendell's first, dismissive sense, 
illustrated by his first example,

> "I don't think social media are properly a subject of humanistic
> criticism. The computer is just a tool."
implying, as he said, that
> it is therefore of less interest or importance, as if
> tools were not significant. It relies on a non sequitur: because the
> computer is a tool, what we do with it -- and what we can do only with
> it -- is outside the scope of humanistic inquiry.

I asked because I wanted to get a sense of how widespread that 
particular form of the dismissive argument remains. It seems to me very 
old and tired, but then this may be in some measure because I am tired 
of hearing it and getting to the point at which I can claim to be old. 
Recently in dealing with an even older and most wearying argument over 
computational stylistics I've again become aware of how long-lasting 
scholarly nonsense can be, so I am wary of concluding that "just a tool" 
in Wendell's first sense is no more heard in this land.

But if one does not think dismissively in that way, then what does the 
toolishness of computing mean for us positively, in terms of (a) what we 
think is happening in the digital humanities, and (b) what sorts of 
things we make? From where I sit, most of what we make still manifests 
"just a tool" -- the push-a-button-and-get-a-result sort of deliverable. 
Is this unfair? If so, what computational objects is it unfair to, and 
at what level of granularity, as seen by what sort of person?

Let me put to you an historical thesis, and invite you to throw stuff at 
it. The thesis is that a long time ago, before some of those here were 
part of discussions like this, scholars encountered mainframe computing 
(slow, huge, expensive, noisy, inaccessible except through 
intermediaries etc), and when they met computing in this physical form 
they and what became the digital humanities were, as ethologists say, 
"imprinted". Perhaps one could claim that urban, middle-class culture as 
a whole was imprinted in this way, since for 20 years or more it was 
bombarded with the mainframe image of computing. Ever after that 
encounter, despite how much the hardware and software have changed, we 
have tended to think of computing as a one way trip from button-pushing 
to result-getting, as a problem-solving exercise. Now I don't mean that 
this is the *only* way we think, esp not consciously, rather that this 
discreditable idea of computing remains a significant impediment to what 
we do and how we think.

I grossly oversimplify, as you can see. I say nothing about how the 
techno-scientific associations of computing, themselves associated with 
scientistic notions of science, lead us to think that problems are for 
solving, and that the computer is therefore meant to do just that, 
magically, as it were. Push a button and get an answer. Nor do I say 
anything now about how the culture of grant-funding, with its demand for 
deliverables, reinforces the notion of a one-way cognitive trip.

So what do you think?

Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
College London; Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western
Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org);
Editor, Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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